Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is The War Moral?

My Uncle Dave has challenged me to discuss whether the War In Iraq is moral. My impression is that he believes it is not, and wishes me to trap myself. Perhaps I do him a disservice on that, and he is really asking my opinion. I mention two or three parts to this in my first paragraph. Here at the site it will be more. I will break it up to keep y'all from going to sleep, however.

You asked me to reveal my thoughts on that question, and it has been fun to get started on it. I will comment in two parts, perhaps three, and the latter parts are not very organized at present. So here is the first part:

Our standards for war have changed over the years, and this is likely a good thing. It is hard to draw exact comparisons – America entered its various wars not only with various degrees of provocation, but different types of provocation. We try and draw analogies, but no war is that much like another. Despite that difficulty, I think you can show pretty quickly that going into Iraq is morally justifiable.

This rather banal fact has been almost completely neglected in criticism of the war (and somewhat in its justification as well). When discussions start by neglecting the most obvious facts it is frustrating to me – I wonder whether I should bother to enter such a discussion at all.

So if we start by comparison to our other wars, our invasion of Iraq easily exceeds all our previous standards. We went into WWI because the Germans sunk some of our ships (bringing supplies to their enemies), sent a telegram to Mexico suggesting that they’d help get Texas back for them if they entered the war, and then topped it by sinking ships with civilians. That is well below the standard of what has been happening with international terrorism since 1979, and especially since 1993.

That is one of the differences in choosing our data for these evaluations. If we start on Sept 10, 2001, then no, we don't have near the justification to have gone to war with Iraq, and even Afghanistan is doubtful. But if one regards 9-11 as a final straw, an escalation of what had been building for decades, it's quite a different story.

We regard the Civil War as one of our moral high points because it got rid of slavery. But our provocation was secession, which we tried to prevent. By what right do we prevent secession? And according to the Constitution at the time, southern states did have the right to do whatever they damn well pleased without anyone invading them. “Preserving the Union” has a nice ring to it, but what is the legal or moral underpinning for that idea? Even WWII, the gold standard for entering wars, isn’t as clean as we pretend. The Japanese attacked a military base, but it wasn’t just for the hell of it. We were supplying their enemies. They had no plan or desire to invade the US and rule it, they just wanted to dominate the Pacific. They knocked out a bunch of ships in hopes of winning the war before we could recover, presenting us with a fait accompli of Japan unhindered in the Pacific.

King Phillip’s War, Spanish American War, War of 1812 – way ahead of all of those.

America’s entry into Iraq, therefore exceeds in moral justification all our previous wars, with the propable exception of WWII. That the question of moral justification even comes up, rather than being laughed off the table, tells us that our standards for going to war have changed. Maybe we were right then, maybe we are right now, but it’s different. Neglecting this obvious fact makes any subsequent discussion rather pointless, like discussing communication without mentioning the internet.

What has changed? Are we gradually becoming a more moral or rational people? There might be evidence for that. We are a less physically cruel people, for example. Animal fighting has a long tradition in the world up until very recent times, even in America, but now we send even famous rich people to jail for sponsoring dogfights. Much of what we call torture of prisoners now does not approach what was done to prisoners by even the Allies in WWII. It might be that we are dimly approaching some kinder, gentler stage of human interaction, and should do everything possible to hold to highest standards and not drop back except under the most extreme provocation. There are many who believe that this is precisely what is happening, and such a belief guides what they think about warfare and international conflict.

I also believe that is happening, but that this improvement is a small part of how our view of war has changed. I think the major change lies elsewhere.

13 comments:

jlbussey said...

Can't wait for further installments...

Gringo said...

Howcum he hasn't brought out the "Better Red Than Dead" theme?

A family member, killed at Harper's Ferry while fighting on John Brown's side, would have respectfully disagreed regarding the Civil War being justified or not.

terri said...

I am somwhat confused by the post and the conclusion that the war in Iraq is more "moral" than our other wars with exception of WWII. I guess I missed the connection between 9/11 and Iraq.

Did we need to respond to 9/11? Absolutely. We went into Afghanistan because of it.

Looking back, with no evidence of WMD's, and no solid proof of Al quaeda in Iraq, I guess I don't believe in the connection from 9/11to Iraq. When Colin Powell comes out and says that he felt he was given misinformation, shouldn't that be an indication that we were on shakier ground for cause than we previously thought?

My biggest beef about Iraq, before the war and now, has less to do with that than with the precedent we set by making a "pre-emptive" strike. It's bad policy. Making a surgical strike against a terrorist operation is one thing, invading a country and overthrowing its governemetn is quite another.

That is not to defend Sadaam, who was obviously a thug and butcher, but only to point out that it puts us in a bad position. We act on what we think we "know", rather than what we do know. It gets us into messy situations and makes us look bad to our Allies and our enemies.

Erik said...

Terri,

You make some good points, but...

Making a surgical strike against a terrorist operation is one thing, invading a country and overthrowing its governemetn is quite another.

Agreed, but I think pre-invasion Iraqi gov't looked more like a big terrorist operation than a soverign nation. What gives Saddam more of a moral right to run Iraq than the US, especially since our end goal is to turn it over to the Iraqi people (when they can handle it) and exit?

That is not to defend Sadaam, who was obviously a thug and butcher

Just answered the question...he doesn't.

...it puts us in a bad position...
...the precedent we set by making a "pre-emptive" strike. It's bad policy.

Legitimate view, IMHO. One that should be thought about before action is taken.

We act on what we think we "know", rather than what we do know.

This is always the case, though. We never really "know" something until we can look back. War in general, in especially in this case, is a form of risk management. We look at the possibilities and probabilities (both are imperfect information) and decide the risk. If a possible outcome is very bad (like WMD) for us, we might decide to act even with a low probability.

terri said...

erik

But, if we act on low probability, what will keep us from acting on low probability again and again? We could be afraid of Putin and Russia. We could be afraid of Iran and their nuclear program.. We could be afraid of North Korea and their nukes.

There is no end of things, and scenarios, that "could" happen. It's truly terrifying to contemplate all the Very Bad Things that could happen.

Yet, should we react and make decisions based on fear? I think that's asking for trouble. What we need is less fear-mongering and more cool-headed tactics.

There are countless global situations that could call for a "moral" war. We can't fight them all.

Erik said...

...what will keep us from acting on low probability again and again?

I would submit that we acted on what we thought was high probability, which - in hindsight - was actually lower than we thought at the time. I am afraid of Iran & North Korea's nukes, but more of that they will end up in someone else's hands. Actually, I think it's only a matter of time before some form of WMD is used here in the US.

There is no end of things, and scenarios, that "could" happen. It's truly terrifying to contemplate all the Very Bad Things that could happen.

That's what we pay our gov't leaders (and the CIA) to do. If the threat seems very clear & present, then I think we have a case to act. If it turns out to be not so clear & present later on, then I agree we need to look long and hard at our decision-making. But one cannot call the decision to go to war "immoral" just because one has better picture now. And that's just a statement, I'm not trying to put words into your mouth here.

...should we react and make decisions based on fear?

There is often a fine line between fear and caution.

There are countless global situations that could call for a "moral" war. We can't fight them all.

True.

David said...

Terri--regarding preemption:

Certainly up through 1936, and possibly 1937, France and Britain together possessed sufficient forces to destroy Nazi Germany. Would you have considered it immoral for them to launch a preemption operation involving a British naval blockade of Germany combined with a French land invasion?

terri said...

erik,

I never said that I thought the war was "immoral". I just am not so sure that we have the moral high ground.....a small distinction perhaps.

david,

I only know basic info about the happenings before Hitler began invading places. I would ask if France would need to invade. Hindsight is 20/20. It is possible if they had done some things differently perhaps the effect on history would have also been different. That depends on a lot of speculation.

I don't agree that the choices are wage war, or do nothing. There are many levels a government should go through before it gets to such a point.

As an aside, I am reading Karl Barth's essays on "How I Changed My Mind." The first one covers his time from 1928-1938, part of which he spent teaching in Germany. Some of the things he says are so eerie because of the insight he had into the nature of Hitler and his use of German churches in the National Socialist Movement.

HE grasped what Hitler and the Nazi movement were about long before his contemporaries.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

everyone's doing a great job without me, so I'll try not to interfere too much.

Terri - I posted on the Barmen Declaration, largely the work of Barth, last month.

Terri, much farther back: I make no Iraq-9/11 connection. 9/11 was the final straw in an escalating struggle. As to WMD's, the eventual discovery was not nothing. We found silver instead of gold. Hindsight will show to be with us once people calm down from the politicizing. Similarly, on Al Qaeda, there was not nothing, as Ray Robinson's book and essays detail. Saddam funded many terrorist groups, secular and religious, Shia and Sunni - and including AQ. He didn't even bother to disguise his hand that much, but the pretences of distance are being used to claim there was no connection.

It sort of like money laundering by groups which wish to maintain deniability, but a coupla phone calls or one squealer and the whole house of cards come down.

terri said...

re: Barth


hmmmm maybe that post combined with another I encountered at internetmonk.com was what led me to look more into Barth.

I've checked about 5 books out about him and his theology, but only just started. I like him. :-) so far anyway!

terri said...

re: not nothing.

I have no rosy image of Sadaam, but the "not nothing" standard could be applied to most of our Middle East Allies.

I guess the question is how much "not nothing" will we stand for?

terri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erik said...

Terri:

I never said that I thought the war was "immoral".

I know that, said that, and I was more stating that case in response to AVI's original post, not your comments.

the "not nothing" standard could be applied to most of our Middle East Allies. I guess the question is how much "not nothing" will we stand for?

Hopefully they too got the message that we take our security seriously. It seems like Libya and Iran (present sabre-rattling notwithstanding) did.

My real hope is that Iraq can pull some magic out of it's hat and create a free society in a part of the world that is not generally known for being an example of humankind's greatest. Maybe then, this crazy brand of Islam won't have such a foothold.


AVI:

everyone's doing a great job without me, so I'll try not to interfere too much

Yeah, we don't need your silly blog....wait.... ;)